At the tender age of 18 months, Sparks skips baby talk and finds her voice through singing. Her first songs are her ABC's and "Jesus Loves Me," according to her mother Jodi.
Sparks hones her performance skills in front of a captive audience: her infant brother, P.J. The family moves often to follow father Phillippi's NFL career, but they eventually settle in Glendale, Ariz. Sparks enters Friday night children singing contests at local restaurant Mr. Lucky's. "She didn't have to work for (her talent), she was a natural," J. David Sloan, former owner of Mr. Lucky's, tells the Arizona Republic in 2007. On a regular basis, she knocks them dead with her rendition of Martina McBride's "A Broken Wing," which she will later sing on national television.
Sparks, 13, is cast in an ensemble role in Phoenix's Valley Youth Theatre's production of The Wiz. "She was pretty young then," artistic director Bobb Cooper tells the New York Post. "She was good; she got even better." Later that year she appears in the theater's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella and the Sandra Day O'Connor High School's production of A Christmas Carol.
Sparks' auditions for Star Search and the American Idol spin-off, Junior Idol, fuel the singer's ambition. "When I'm on the stage, I feel like I can be myself and nobody will care," Sparks later tells PEOPLE. "I love being up there. I love seeing the faces in the crowd. I love hearing the clapping when you're performing." Determined to move her career forward, she records a five-track demo album, "For Now."
Sparks enters NBC's America's Most Talented Kid, winning in the first round, but losing her championship bid. A few months later she scores two Gospel Music Association Academy awards and catches the eye of Chaz Corzine, a Christian-music talent scout, who introduces her to Christian singer Michael W. Smith. "It wasn't just a case of her being good 'for a 15-year-old.' She was great, for any age," Smith tells the New York Post. He hires Sparks as a background vocalist for his Christmas 2005 and 2006 tour, and at the start of her sophomore year in 2005, Sparks opts to be home-schooled to focus on her singing career.
After winning Arizona's own Idol spin-off contest, Sparks wins a Ford Fusion and a second chance to audition for the sixth season of Idol in Seattle. (She initially auditioned for American Idol in Pasadena, Calif. but did not make the cut.) The 16-year-old blows judges Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson away with her rendition of Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me." Cowell describes Sparks' performance: "It was a little bit too sugary for my taste. [But] I like you..." She receives a golden ticket to Hollywood rounds and a spot among the show's top 24 contestants.
Though some criticize Sparks' overly cute, youthful behavior, viewers continue to vote for her. She earns a spot amongst Idol's Top 10, and PEOPLE dubs her the "Teen Wonder" of the ''Diva Trio'' rounded out by finalists Melinda Doolittle and Lakisha Jones. While on the show, Sparks wakes up early to complete three hours of school, rehearses for the show and shoots the Idol-required Ford commercials.
With only seven contestants remaining, Sparks sings Martina McBride's hit "A Broken Wing. The country star, who served as the episode's celebrity coach, calls Sparks' rendition "awesome." Cowell is equally impressed: "This is the first time since we have met where I actually believe, based on that performance, you could win American Idol." The following week, she performs Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone," and Jackson calls the performance "one of the best vocals in the history of the show."
Sparks battles risk-taking beat boxer Blake Lewis in the one-hour finale. The show's defining moment comes when both contestants perform the new inspirational ballad, "This Is My Now," the winning entry in the show's songwriting contest. While Lewis, who is stronger as an entertainer, appears uncomfortable and out of range with the song, Sparks blows it out of the park with Cowell telling her, "You just wiped the floor with Blake on that song."
The 17-year-old wonder is crowned the sixth winner of American Idol, becoming the youngest in the show's history. Lewis, who says Sparks was his pick from the beginning to win, tells PEOPLE, "She's 17 and she's already a woman. She performs, she's good looking, she's got a fantastic personality." Sparks tells reporters, "I'm very, very strong willed. This is what I want to do. It's what I've been wanting to do for so long."
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